To Scindia's discomfort, Nath bags key post in run-up to MP poll

Rasheed Kidwai | 27 Apr 2018 10:37 PM

Photo: Twitter: @JM_Scindia/ File

The newly appointed head of Madhya Pradesh Congress unit, Kamal Nath, is in a league of his own in the Congress. He is a nine-time winner of the Chhindwara Lok Sabha seat which makes him the senior-most parliamentarian in the 16th Lok Sabha. Nath has been a leader who has been part of the Congress since the Sanjay Gandhi era. He is the man who had contributed to the fall of Janata regime of 1979, sowing seeds of discontent between Morarji Desai and Charan Singh, and making full use of the maverick Raj Narain.

In spite of his impressive track record, Nath was not accorded a front-ranking Congress leader’s role in the league of P Chidambaram, Sushil Kumar Shinde, AK Antony, Ahmed Patel and others during the 10 long years of UPA rule between 2004-14.  Nath could not become a member of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs though his 'juniors' like Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid managed to get into the elite CCPA.

Yet, as a middle-rung leader, Nath maintained a track record of being a “go-getter” and a “doer”. When the UPA was struggling to push through a bill on FDI in retail, Nath performed a near miracle by bringing Mayawati to vote for the Bill in the Rajya Sabha in the latter half of 2008. Just as confident opposition leaders were retiring to bed, Nath was with Mayawati in the company of Satish Mishra, promising the BSP supremo to bring in  SC/ST job  reservation Bill in parliament in exchange of her support to the FDI.

Against this backdrop, Nath’s appointment as MPCC chief is a signal that Rahul Gandhi is finally acknowledging leaders with seniority and proven track record. The big question is whether the Doon School, St Xavier's, Calcutta, alumnus will be able to outwit Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Madhya Pradesh’s longest serving Chief Minister? Nath has several plus points at a time when assembly polls are seven months away. His rapport with the BSP is crucial as the Mayawati-led party has sizeable number of voters and presence in the central Indian state. The BSP has the potential of helping the Congress win or causing it to lose about two dozen seats (depending upon its support or opposition to the Congress)..

Nath started eyeing Madhya Pradesh soon after the Congress’s humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. He deftly worked out intra-party strategic alliances with Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia. While Scindia seems sulking after Nath’s appointment as MPCC chief, all eyes are on Digvijaya who is known to secretly nurse an ambition to return as Chief Minister.

In MP Congress circles, Nath is called 'Bada Bhai' of Diggy Raja – a tag he earned during the ten-year rule of Digvijaya Singh (1993-2003) when Nath and Digvijay had neutralised veterans like Arjun Singh, Madhavrao Scindia and the Shukla brothers (all dead now). During Digvijaya's rule Nath's wishes were treated as command as the Chief Minister publicly acknowledged Nath as his 'Bada Bhai' and the real power behind the throne.

As a politician, Nath realised that he had far better chance of success in becoming Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 2018 and contributing to a Congress victory in 2019 general election than serving as AICC general secretary. This explains Nath’s “disinclination” in recent days as AICC general secretary in charge of Haryana. The choice of achieving a personal triumph is far more tempting for a worldlywise Nath.

Nath, son of a businessman from Meerut, was a contemporary of Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi at Doon School, where he was affectionately called 'Roly'. He later earned a BCom degree from St Xavier's College, Calcutta. At the height of Sanjay’s clout during 1975-76, there used to be a slogan, “Indira Gandhi ke do haath, Sanjay Gandhi aur Kamal Nath.”

Nath is known for his ready wit. He had narrated how travelling from Paris to Brussels by train with the then European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson, he had explained his stand against agricultural protectionism by the developed countries.  "Here are the fat cows living on subsidised food and they can't stand on their legs. That is my story and that is my argument," he had told Mandelson. On another occasion, asked what time he gets up in the morning, Nath repkied, "First ask me what time I go to sleep!"

Nath has nursed his Chhindwara constituency well and visits it every month. It's part of local lore how he once got executives from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation to visit Chhindwara as his guests so he could persuade them to extend a loan for a Central project that involved building a dam on the local Pench river.

In February 2007 he had got industry chamber CII to hold a conclave in Chhindwara. Two private jets carrying leading Indian industrialists had landed on the Nath family's airstrip. One of the upshots: a spice park in the constituency.

Nath has got sucked into some controversies too. In 2011, party rivals accused him of inviting Baba Ramdev to Chhindwara to organise a campaign against the UPA II Government. A party member from Ujjain, Prem Chand Guddu, had at that point of time written to Sonia Gandhi alleging Nath had raised Rs 25 lakh for the campaign. Nath denied any involvement.  Earlier, during the last days of the PV Narasimha Rao Government in the mid-1990s, Nath had been forced to quit the Cabinet after being accused in the Jain hawala case.

Nath’s role in 1984 has been hazy and often treated as a forgotten, closed chapter. However, the ghosts of 1984 came back to haunt Nath when during a visit to the US he found himself summoned by a US federal district court in a civil case filed under the Alien Torts Claims Act, where the petitioners have sought compensatory and punitive damages for several allegations, including crimes against humanity, degrading treatment and wrongful killing.

In a series of interviews, Nath has been stressing on the fact  he had never been charged in any court and questioned why these allegations were being raised more than two decades after the tragedy and that too in a foreign land. "For the last 25 years I wasn't involved... suddenly in 2010 I get involved... There was nobody who stood up and said that he was a victim or that I was in any way connected. So I'm surprised and appalled,"  Nath had said.
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